By Jon Crout
Otto was allocated a bunk in a dormitory, and he only realised how much his aching body needed to rest once he was lying down. As he stretched out, he thought deeply about what he was finding out. Everything seemed great. Compared to what he was used to, problems were being solved, positive action and kindness to others were winning out over xenophobia and selfishness. Ignorance was on the run, and it all seemed down to the efforts of one woman. In spite of this, Otto was worried. He was steeped in enough sci-fi folklore to know that there was probably a catch. Some ulterior motive that would be to the great disadvantage of most people involved. Was it his duty to try and find out? Was that why he was here?
Over the next couple of days, he did not venture far. He mingled with the other residents and absorbed all he could about how this world differed from his own, and he speculated where he could on exactly what had caused things to be different. Muriel herself was a mystery. She looked just like someone he thought he knew well from the media, yet of course had never met. Here, somehow, she had been given a totally different birth name, and turned out to be a complete contrast to the individual that he had made up his mind about after reading internet articles and twitter comments.
Had he been wrong about that version of her? Or could two versions of the same person really be that different?
Everything that he found out about Muriel Diamond informed him of her innovations and her commitment; key moments such as the way that she had sweet-talked Mr Putin into implementing his own extensive aid programme, and intercepted overladen boats en route to Lesvos using her own yacht, to help save refugees from a watery fate. He had to admire the way that she had adapted the old museum after getting the contents moved into the dockyard. Muriel had her own proud military family history, yet she managed to use that to emphasise the need for intervention and change from a modern viewpoint. There was acceptance and gratitude for old ways whilst embracing the new. Otto read articles that were eloquent and persuasive that left him in no doubt that togetherness was the only future and that dropping bombs on people would not solve any of the long term problems facing humankind.
On Thursday morning he took a stroll across the common. It was overcast and blustery, but plenty of people were out enjoying the day. A group of children were playing an expansive wide game, and as he got closer he noted there were a few adults joining in. He was almost past them when he stopped. Right in the middle, laughing and running as hard as any of them, was the woman with that face. She kept playing, but gradually became aware of the person looking at her. She turned her head a number of times as she moved around. Otto was not sure if she had looked at him directly, those deep set eyes very close to that proud nose gave the appearance of a slight squint.
Eventually she detached herself from the game and got into one of the Assistant’s rickshaws, and was taken off in the direction of the Diamond Shelter. She passed close enough to Otto for him to be sure that their eyes met. For a second, he even thought that there was a flicker of recognition. He dismissed this as fanciful, and carried on his walk. The sky was darkening ominously.
He returned in time for the evening meal, and he was intending to spend the rest of the day quietly reading. Before he had the chance to clear his plates he was tapped on the shoulder. A man in an official looking suit was behind him.
‘Muriel would like to speak with you.’
The matter did not seem up for debate, and the man in the suit stayed behind him until they reached an office in a part of the refurbished complex that Otto had not been to before. The door was opened for him, and he went in alone. Muriel Diamond was sat behind a desk.
‘Please, sit down,’ she beckoned. Otto did as he was asked. Muriel got straight to the point. ‘We don’t know who you are. Your identification doesn’t check out. I don’t believe for one minute that you arrived on any of the refugee transports, I think you came from much closer to home. So the question is, who are you, and where do you come from?’
Otto felt very uncomfortable. He had heard nothing but good things about this woman, but clearly she was no fool. He really did not like the way that she was looking at him. She got up and moved around to the front of the desk, and sat on it.
‘Look, you’re not in any real trouble, we’ve been watching you, and you’ve done no real harm. But you have been asking a lot of questions. Things that even the dumbest person really ought to know. I want to know why?’
Otto’s discomfort grew. He got up out of his chair, and tried to back towards the door, but his sense of direction was off and he backed right up into the wall. Muriel moved towards him. She ended up almost toe to toe, and even though he knew he had no real reason to panic, he was afraid.
‘OK, mystery man, let’s have it!’
And then she kissed him. He was so taken aback that he could not move or fight, until he realised that he did not have to. As suddenly as she had grabbed him, she let go, and went back behind her desk, where she grabbed a photo standing in a frame and turned it towards him. It was a picture of his own face, wearing a tan and a TV toothpaste smile.
‘That’s me!’ was all that he could say.
‘No, it’s definitely not you. This is my Dicky, he was my rock after my husband was butchered in Turkey. Yet he was also taken from me as we carried out our last rescue mission in the Med. When I first saw you, I thought, I hoped he might have come back to me. Once I’d kissed you I was sure. You’re not him’. Otto rubbed his lips and adjusted his trousers. Muriel continued, ‘so the question still remains: who are you?’
Otto told her everything that he could. He saw no reason to lie, or miss things out. He had no real idea what was going on either. She listened intently and asked only pertinent questions. When it came to the reason for his being there, they both speculated.
‘I thought it might be something to do with the referendum?’ Otto offered.
‘What referendum?’ Muriel genuinely had no idea what he was talking about. It turned out on this world, the referendum had been a campaign pledge that had never been followed up on. The ongoing good work to promote accord in as much of the world as possible was getting wholesale and unprecedented support from nearly everyone, which meant that it was just not an issue here.
Suddenly there was commotion outside, and an aide knocked and entered hurriedly.
‘The storm’s coming ma’am. Too many people have gone down to the seafront. Could you have a word?’
‘Honestly, the trouble with being brilliant is that they expect you to do everything’. She flashed Otto a self-deprecating smile, and left the room. He followed close behind.
Out on the promenade, the waves were crashing down. Black, terrible clouds had gathered, and the edges of the forecast Hurricane Madonna had arrived as promised from the Atlantic to abuse the south coast.
‘Dirty foreign storm, coming over here and smashing our beaches,’ Otto found himself muttering.
Muriel started talking to people individually, asking them to get back indoors, but they were not interested. It seemed that they already had agreed on the best course of action. Everyone kept pushing Muriel forward and pointing out to sea. They were shouting things at her, but the wind made it impossible for Otto to hear. After a short while it became clear what they wanted. They thought she should command the storm to retreat. These people whose lives had been saved and transformed by this woman had elevated her to the point of deification.
Muriel ended up on her own, apart from the throng, a little way down the prom from everyone else. Each crashing wave sent spray high in the air and over those gathered. The crowd had separated them, yet Muriel turned and held Otto’s gaze completely. He could tell from her countenance that she knew that any gesture would be futile, yet the weight of expectation from all these people that believed in her was too much. She raised her arms. This was her Cnut moment.
‘The sea defences!’ The aide at Otto’s elbow screamed. Waves were crashing with increasing ferocity, and with a terrible and audible crack the concrete under Muriel’s feet split and fractured, and in another explosion of spray, she was gone.
Chaos ensued. Staff and security arrived on the scene, residents were ushered inside, though many were not keen to go. Grieving wailers and adverse conditions made rescue efforts nigh on impossible.
Otto removed himself from the masses, but could not face going back inside. What did it all mean? Could this world endure without one of its guiding lights? An idea formed in his mind. Perhaps Dicky was not dead, just missing. Maybe he could reappear and carry on the good work that his lost partner had started. This world was much better than his, so why not stay and get in at the top?
Concentrating on his plan, he absent-mindedly reached out for the door of the portable toilet he happened upon in the car park and went inside. As soon as he saw the logo in front of him, he snapped back to the moment and dashed outside again.
He was too late. The D-Day Museum car park was back as he remembered it. He was removed from that world and its tragedy. Otto headed for home once more, readjusting with every footfall and keen to see just how his world had behaved while he was away. He glanced over his shoulder and noted the tanks were reassuringly in position.
He failed to notice the unfamiliar look-out towers on the seafront, searchlights scanning the water. Nor did he see the lights come on in front of the nearest tank, and the turret swivel. A non-registered alien had been detected and the UKIP migrant pacifier had come online.